Time to start straight talk

When I was in Cairo last week, Osama Ghazali Harb, an Egyptian political analyst, told me about a speech that he had recently given at the main Coptic Cathedral there. It was a discussion about the state of Arab politics. After he had finished, he said, an Iraqi man who had come with Egyptian friends, got up to ask a question and along the way made the following statement:There are “only two democracies” in the Middle East today: “Iraq and Israel.” The audience booed.

“The audience got very angry with him,” Harb told me.

Iraq has become one of those subjects that so many people come to with so much emotional scar tissue that it is hard to have a sober discussion about the actual situation there today. So much is colored by how you feel about George W. Bush or whether you were for or against the war. As a result, what we do next in Iraq – how and why – is barely getting discussed in the presidential campaign.

Too bad, because this is going to be a really hard call – one that will require sorting through three conflicting political realities.

Mood, reality, stability

The first is the mood of the American public, which has rendered a judgment that the price we have paid in Iraq over the last five years far, far exceeds what has been achieved there to date. Therefore, whoever wins the presidency – John McCain or Barack Obama – will take office knowing that the American people will not tolerate another four years dominated by an open-ended commitment to Iraq.

But the second is the reality on the ground in Iraq, which is no longer an unremitting horror story. Clearly, the surge has helped to dampen the internal conflict. Clearly, the Iraqi army is performing better. Clearly, Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, by cracking down on rogue Shiite groups from his own community, has established himself as more of a national leader. Clearly, the Sunnis have decided to take part in the coming parliamentary elections.

The third reality, though, is the fact that the reconciliation process inside Iraq – almost five years after our invasion – still has not reached a point where Iraq's stability is self-sustaining. It still is not clear that Iraq is a country that can be held together by anything other than an iron fist. It's still not clear that its government is anything more than a collection of sectarian fiefs.

We can continue debating the merits of the war all we want until Jan. 20, 2009, but from that day forward there will be only one question for the next president: In light of these three conflicting trends, what are you planning to do with the Iraq you're inheriting?

If McCain is the next commander in chief, the U.S. military will tell him on day one that we can't stay in Iraq at the present troop levels indefinitely because the cost to our armed forces is becoming unbearable; if it is Obama, the Iraqis will tell him on day one that we can't leave Iraq precipitously because it will explode.

It would be a huge mistake for McCain to give up his goal of salvaging something in Iraq. But it would also be big mistake to assume that the public would tolerate another president's open-ended commitment there. Similarly, it would be a huge mistake for Obama to now give up his commitment to a phased withdrawal. That is very important leverage on the Iraqis. But it would also be a big mistake not to give Iraq a fresh look and ask: Can something decent still be salvaged there at an acceptable cost?

“When it comes to Iraq, most Americans really want to leave, but they still don't want to lose,” argues Michael Mandelbaum, author of “Democracy's Good Name.” Navigating these conflicting moods and trends on the ground in Iraq is going to be one of the most excruciatingly difficult challenges ever handed from one president to another.

It might be useful to start talking about it.